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Humanitarian actions and disaster response

What is the relationship between humanitarian action and disaster response?

At this point, it is pertinent to explore the distinction between humanitarian actions and disaster response and management.

As you will see from the literature and media coverage, the terms ‘humanitarian action, assistance and aid’, and ‘disaster response and relief’ are often used interchangeably.

Traditionally, disaster response tends to stem from activities undertaken which provide relief from the impacts of natural hazards. It involves a range of stakeholders from the community, civil society, local and national governments and internal and external agencies.

In comparison, humanitarian action (including material aid and logistical assistance) historically comprises actions often across international borders, whereby unbiased civil society and external agencies act without discrimination, providing help to those whose lives are at risk.

Barnett (2011) identifies that there is a distinction between compassion and humanitarianism. Humanitarianism is a way of operating during a crisis, often in the space in which national governmental agencies can’t or won’t intervene. It was traditionally a reactive approach – saving lives. However, it is increasingly incorporated into the wider and more strategic process of conflict resolution and peacebuilding, running the risk of politicising humanitarian actions.

Disaster management is the integrated approach to assessing, reducing and managing risks. We now strive to integrate humanitarian action with a holistic approach to disaster risk management. We will assume that there is a tacit agreement that humanitarianism and humanitarian action is the principled approach that should be taken in all risk-based situations, where people are vulnerable or suffering regardless of cause.

In an international context, the term emergency seems to be increasingly used as a catch-all. The UN stipulates as part of its mandate that it coordinate humanitarian relief operations in response to natural and man-made disasters in areas beyond the relief capacity of national authorities, with OCHA the lead co-ordinating UN agency for ‘responses to emergencies’ (United Nations n.d.)

Your task

In your view, what is the relationship between humanitarian action and disaster response? Post your ideas in the comments section and discuss them with your fellow learners.

Further reading

Barnett, M. N. (2013) ‘Humanitarian Governance’. Annual Review of Political Science [online] 16, 379-398. available from [8 April 2020]


Barnett, M. (2011) Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism. London: Cornell University Press

United Nations (n.d.) Deliver Humanitarian Aid [online] available from [8 April 2020]

© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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Humanitarian Action, Response and Relief

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